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Illustration by Sean Parsons

Colorado’s Billboards and the Mine-Shaft Gap

Are you ready to learn to love the billboard? One of the oldest forms of advertising is in high demand, and it's being used to launch controversial marketing campaigns across Colorado. Here’s why.

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This is a story about billboards. Which means it is also a story about abortion, morality, good business, and green chile. And about one of Denver’s most notorious attorneys talking in terms of Cold War nuclear strategy. Trust me, we’ll get there.

But first, let’s go back one year, to January 2019, to a place about 20 miles east of Colorado’s border with Utah. It was the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States. And a new, west-facing billboard went up on I-70 near Fruita welcoming travelers to Colorado.

It wasn’t your typical greeting. The 672-square-foot blue bulletin offered the following message:

Welcome to Colorado, where you can get a safe, legal abortion.

Motorists crossing the border into the Centennial State, regardless of their views on reproductive rights, were met with the polarizing message. It was as simple as it was striking, the brainchild of a team at ProgressNow Colorado, a liberal political advocacy group based in Denver.

“We were looking at different things we could do to highlight the burden of travel that people face when they live in states with limited access to abortion,” says Fawn Bolak, ProgressNow’s communications director who, at the time, directed the organization’s Keep Abortion Safe program. “When you place a billboard somewhere that’s in the public space, it’s hard to ignore. Everyone has to see it. Everyone has an opinion on it.”

Photo courtesy of ProgressNow Colorado

Turns out, a lot of people did have an opinion on it—but not at first. For several months, the billboard that stood near Fruita garnered little attention. It just stood there. We’ll never know the extent of the conversations and debates, the furious exclamations and passionate endorsements it prompted from drivers and passengers leaving Utah, but there was little buzz surrounding the billboard during the winter months.

Then, in May, lawmakers in Alabama effectively voted to ban abortion in their state—the most restrictive of a series of similar bills that conservative-leaning states passed around the same time. It was against that backdrop that the ProgressNow billboard suddenly went viral.

With Alabama’s new law fueling debate and argument across the country, people on social media started sharing images of the sign in Fruita. Then a Denver TV station picked up the story. From there, the provocative sign hit the pages of the Washington Post, as columnist Kathleen Parker made it the subject of a piece titled: “Billboards are the wrong place to fight over abortion.” Parker called the ProgressNow campaign “an unwelcome intrusion upon [travelers’] meditations.” She even co-opted our state’s favorite cliché to make her point: “Nothing like a gargantuan abortion reminder to ruin a Rocky Mountain high.”

If Parker intended to discourage the sign raisers, she only emboldened her target audience. The Associated Press aggregated her column, and before long newspapers across the country were carrying it in their opinion pages and on their websites, too. Back in Colorado, the ProgressNow group was buoyed by the publicity. Soon, people in states like Illinois were calling Bolak and ProgressNow’s executive director Ian Silverii asking if they could borrow the concept for billboards on the borders of conservative states like Missouri.

ProgressNow also saw a serious return on investment. Bolak says her team spent about $1,300 on the billboard in Fruita. According to a Meltwater analysis, the organic media coverage it generated—thanks in large part to Parker’s column—is equivalent to more than $400,000 in marketing value.

Parker wasn’t the only person put off by the board. Bob Enyart is a pastor at Denver Bible Church, a radio talk show host, and a spokesperson for Colorado Right to Life, which works to end abortion. Enyart viewed the billboard as immoral—a cheeky campaign endorsing murder.

“Whatever means people use to advocate dismembering unborn children—it’s criminal,” he says, thinking back to when he first saw the billboard. “It truly is criminal. Regardless of whether society looks the other way.”

Enyart is no stranger to controversial anti-abortion messaging. In 2008, when the Democratic National Convention came to Denver, he led a project that placed one of the world’s largest protest signs on North Table Mountain. The sign—made of sewed-together white paper sheets—proclaimed that the Democratic National Committee, which was about to nominate Barack Obama for president, “Destroys uNborn Children.” The DNC letters were painted yellow. At 666-feet long (no coincidence), the sign could be seen from at least seven miles away.

Photo courtesy of Colorado Right to Life

So, in response to ProgressNow’s welcome sign near Utah, Enyart formulated his own campaign. He contacted OUTFRONT Media, which leased the billboard to Folak, and made plans to rent that same space in Fruita once ProgressNow’s contract expired.

His billboard went up in June carrying a vastly divergent message from the one that had been there before. It featured an image of a 10-week-old fetus in its mother’s womb and a url directing curious parties to the Colorado Right to Life website. Enyart purchased two additional boards carrying the same message, one on Speer Boulevard in Denver and another in Pueblo.

Enyart estimated he spent about $10,000 on the three billboards. But did he get his money’s worth? Did he see a fiscal return in equal magnitude to his liberal counterparts? If we’re talking dollars and cents, probably not. But, for Enyart, that’s not the point. “If we save one baby, that’s an eternal reward,” he says. “There’s eternal value and worth in every human life.”

Even if it doesn’t seem like a good deal financially, Enyart’s team measures impact by the number of women who choose not to terminate their pregnancies—a figure, he admits, that is impossible to calculate precisely.

Here’s the rub with billboards. They’re among the oldest forms of advertising. Before radio and television and programmatic algorithms and social media, people slung their propaganda on signs. It’s hard to know precisely when the first went up, but roadside advertisements were proliferating by the mid-1800s in the United States, according to the Out of Home Advertising Association of America.

By the mid-1900s, billboard campaigns were so ubiquitous that a frustrated Lady Bird Johnson pushed her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the United States Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, eliminating many billboards and regulating others. In Steamboat Springs, the F.M. Light & Sons western wear store, which at the time had about 300 billboards within 150 miles of its business, was among the hardest hit by the new legislation.

Now, because billboards are such a dated form of advertising, there’s no true way to calculate one’s value—whether it’s the sum of marketing dollars generated, the extent that reproductive rights were expanded, or the number of lives that were saved. You can make some estimates—you can study traffic patterns and track media pickup—but you’ll never really know your reach.

Still, according to Scott Blair, sales director for OUTFRONT Media in Denver, the billboard business is good—very good. In fact, Blair says, the out-of-home advertising industry (which includes billboards) in general has seen more than 30 consecutive quarters of growth—which has been felt in local markets like Denver. And according to the Financial Times, spending on out-of-home advertising is expected to overtake newspaper ad sales for the first time in 2020. By 2024 it could exceed spending on both newspapers and magazines combined.

Yes, billboards and highway signs are popular. And it’s partly because traditional advertising mediums are delivering smaller audiences. Blair says customers that once relied on television and radio commercials are fleeing those markets, too, because an increasing number of people are ditching cable and using streaming services.

This won’t surprise Denverites, but for that reason personal injury attorneys are among the fastest-growing billboard customers in the city, Blair says. Take a drive down Federal Boulevard—or any other major thoroughfare in the city—and it’s hard to miss Frank “the Strongarm” Azar’s giant yellow signs or the light blue Bachus & Schanker boards.

It wasn’t always that way, though. For years, Azar’s primary form of advertising featured cars crashing into your living room and him breaking through the insurance industry with an actual baseball bat. Gradually, though, those ads became less effective. “The whole market has changed,” Azar says. “The number of cable subscribers has gone down. People are streaming a lot. There’s all kinds of new technology.”

Photo by Jay Bouchard

But that’s not the only reason the Strongarm turned to billboards. In fact, he doesn’t even like billboards. If he had his druthers, he wouldn’t have hundreds scattered across the state. In a perfect world, Frank Azar would have zero.

When I interviewed him in December, he explained it like this:

“Let me just cut through this. I never was keen on billboards. Never ever used them. Never wanted to use them. The only reason I started doing billboards is because, you know, my competitors were doing them…So, does it work, is it worth the money? The jury’s out on that. No one really knows for sure…All of a sudden, my competitors started going on the billboards. And you’ve seen the movie Doctor Strangelove, right? I don’t want to have a mine-shaft gap.”

(For the uninitiated, Azar’s reference is to the 1964 satire with the memorable sub-title “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” in which American officials debate nuclear proliferation in their fight against the Soviet Union. If the U.S. didn’t build up its own arsenal of weapons, it may have fallen behind the Russians—creating what characters call a “mine-shaft gap.”)

Azar hasn’t learned to stop worrying and love billboards. He just isn’t willing to yield a potential competitive advantage in Denver’s personal injury attorney market.  “My competitors started doing it,” he says. “And it upsets me to see somebody else’s ad in any place.”

Beyond that, there’s little value for him.  “You can’t attribute anything to billboards. Period,” Azar says. “I can’t sit here and say; ‘oh well, this billboard brought in this many inquiries.’ I wish it did. Then maybe I’d see that I didn’t need to be on any billboards at all.”

It’s hard to know who really needs to be on billboards, but the customer base here runs the gamut. One of the most obscure campaigns last year was purchased by the New Mexico Tourism Department, which placed controversial billboards in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo taunting Coloradans and boasting that New Mexico is the “Chile Capitol of the World.”

It was the result of a Twitter feud in July between Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in which Colorado’s chief executive challenged his southern counterpart to a taste-off between Pueblo and Hatch green chile.

Individuals, too, are buying billboards in the Centennial State. A mother in Colorado Springs, distraught and frustrated that police haven’t found her son’s killer, recently purchased a series of digital billboards bearing her son’s image, asking onlookers: “Who murdered me?” It’s more than a little reminiscent of the award-winning 2017 movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and—who knows? The strategy might yield some credible information, unlike what Frances McDormand’s character finds in the film.

The truth is, we really don’t know what a single billboard might do today—where a seemingly ancient form of advertising could catch a stranger’s attention and lead to meaningful action. In the digital age, a billboard could be the jumping off point for a social media frenzy, as it was for the team at ProgressNow. It could also be an extension of a broader media campaign, as it was for the marketing strategists working for the state of New Mexico.

That’s just how billboards work. Even if, as in Azar’s case, you don’t like them—even if you have no clue whether they’re valuable for your business—if you don’t buy the billboard space in today’s market, someone else will (heck, even 5280 has bought billboard space in the past). So, as long as the 672-square-foot real estate exists, it’s a safe bet billboard space will be bought and occupied by competing parties trying to avoid a mine-shaft gap.

It’s not a new strategy, and it’s certainly not a beacon of technological advancement. But if you’ve got something to say these days, it’s time you learned to love the billboard.

Winter in Colorado

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